The link between colonialism and police brutality

I highly recommend this recent episode of the BBC World Service programme, “The Real Story”: How do you stop police brutality? It inspired me to think about the problem of police brutality in broader terms.

Previously I was thinking more about the problems inherent in the kind of people sometimes attracted to policing (and the military):

We need police officers. We need soldiers. Unfortunately, both professions tend to attract people who enjoy weapons, conflict, and power—sometimes to the point of psychopathy. Not all, but a significant percentage. And that turns out to be a significant problem for which we do not have a solution.

But the problem is bigger than that. Surprisingly, that may mean that it is more possible to find solutions. Not easier, but more possible.

Coercive policing was an essential element of colonialism. Colonial police were given a job by their governments with clear mandates:

  1. Surveil the population, looking for potential troublemakers who might threaten the colonial system.
  2. Control those groups and individuals who would dissent, demonstrate, and organize to change or overthrow the system.
  3. Use whatever means are necessary, including coercion and violence, to ensure order and stability.

This pattern can be recognized immediately in the histories of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern peoples colonized by European nations in the 19th century. In all such cases, the European police officers were supplemented by large numbers of policemen recruited from among the local population. These native policemen, in return for job security and a certain kind of power and status, gave their loyalty to the colonial regimes that were exploiting their own people. Decolonization after World War II led, most often, to colonial governments being replaced by despotic native rulers who used the same system of coercive policing to control the population and keep themselves in power.

In the Americas we see the same coercive policing used against domestically colonized populations: indigenous people and racialized minorities. These domestically colonized people have provided cheap labour essential to the prosperity of the affluent majority. To ensure the supply of cheap labour, such people must be kept in their place. Dissent, demonstrations, and organization against the status quo must be quashed, and coercive policing is used to suppress such activities, in exactly the same way that colonial police forces operated in the 19th century. And, again, police recruited from among the colonized population have been essential to making the system work. We should not be surprised, then, when a Native American band council subsidized by the US government forms a local police force that proceeds to use violence against their own band members who oppose the leadership; or when Black police officers in an American city commit violence against Black citizens. In both cases, the police officers’ loyalty is to the system in power that has employed them and raised their status, not to the people they have been hired to, theoretically, “serve.”

We see similar coercive policing used against immigrant populations in European countries.

So the actual motto of such police forces is not “Protect and Serve” but “Surveil, Control, and Coerce.”

If this is correct, we have good news and bad news. On one hand, the problem of identifying and removing officers or recruits with psychopathic personalities appears quite manageable. As noted in the BBC programme, Norway has an effective system of screening out such individuals. Once that is done, we are no longer dealing with chronic but seemingly random acts of violence involving rogue police officers.

On the other hand, trying to solve the problem of police violence by reforming the police with better training, body cameras, etc., is doomed to fail. It is like reforming school curricula to address racism and poverty. Hence the bad news: the system of coercive policing supports a social and economic system that is inherently unfair and unequal. Without poverty, without income and wealth inequality, the affluence and social status of the privileged classes disappear. Moreover, in places like the United States there is a culture of violence that compounds the problem. An armed and often violent population seems inevitably to require an armed and violent police force.

And so, just as we must repair broken communities to repair broken schools, we must reform the system that employs coercive policing if we want to reform policing itself.

No justice, no peace.


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